After more than 17 months of turmoil in Cameroon’s two restive English-speaking regions, the country’s government is still in denial that it has lost control of these regions. Despite growing insecurity in the two regions, the government still maintains that there is security in the regions. The death toll has been staggering and many families are yet to come to terms with the loss of their family members and sometimes, even their homes, especially in areas such as Kwakwa and Kembong where the government resorted to collective punishment as a means of intimidating the population.
Despite the government’s denial, it has recently created a fifth military region in Bamenda, the North West region’s capital. It has also increased the number of soldiers in Manyu Division, Southern Cameroons most populated division, where many army soldiers have been sent to an early grave. Despite the lull in fighting, there are still many skirmishes in the region and tensions remain very high. Places like Kembong in Manyu Division and Mbonge in Ndian Division are still considered by many as ticking time bombs that could go off at any time.
Analysts across the country and the world see the government’s deployment of troops in the regions as a move to face off with the separatists who are hell-bent on breaking up the country to grant the English-speaking population the independence it has been hankering after for years. The Yaounde government has also been working hard and long to prove that there is enough security in the two regions and this is fast drying up the state’s coffers and more than 800 civilian and military lives have been lost in a conflict that started with a peaceful demonstration by lawyers.
Most of the lives lost were due to the government’s refusal to head to the negotiating table, though the country’s president has, on many occasions, called for dialogue and peace as necessary factors that must be in place for the country to reach its 2035 development goals. But many analysts see the president’s calls for peace as a joke. He has been accused of paying lip service to the whole notion of peace and dialogue and his actions during the period of the conflict have clearly portrayed him as a man who professes peace, but practices violence.
The government’s violent response to demonstrations by teachers and lawyers are to blame for the degeneration of the conflict. If the entire Southern Cameroons population is in support of the calls for secession, it is more because of the government’s military response to a simple call for federalism. Many Southern Cameroonians have viewed all government actions ever since the conflict erupted as a strategy to shut up the people and keep them in the darkness of ignorance.
The Southern Cameroonian population was angered the most by the brutality Buea University students were subjected to during their call for dialogue with university authorities following a unilateral decision by Buea University authorities to increase fees.
In a typical fascist approach, the students were brutalized, some were made to drink raw sewage and many girls were raped. Similarly, many young men and women were taken to the police station and ever since, nothing has been heard about them.
The government has never apologized for allowing its forces to unleash such terror on innocent and armless students. It is yet to account for all the students who had been arrested during the student strike and the vice chancellor who was responsible for the strike, Professor Nalova Lyonga Pauline Egbe, has recently been rewarded with a ministerial position.
Ever since the conflict started, many schools have remained closed, especially in rural areas where most of the fighting is taking place today. In many of those villages, many young men have escaped into the jungle for safety as government troops have the nasty habit of brutalizing the population each time a soldier is killed by unknown armed men.
Like schools, the regions’ courts have remained closed and each time an English-speaking Cameroonian is arrested, he or she is immediately sent to Yaounde where he or she is held in custody for many months. It should be called that one of the grievances that caused the Southern Cameroons crisis was the abusive use of French in the English-speaking parts of the country and the subjecting of Southern Cameroonians to the use of French even when millions of them have not had any close contact with the language.
For more than 15 months, the country’s English-speaking minority has been striving to have the government rethink its strategy. It has organized ghost town operations with the objective of bringing the government to the negotiating table where the form of the state could be discussed in order to put an end to the hyper-centralized system that has brought frustration, death and destruction to Cameroonians. But the government’s refusal to discuss the form of the state has caused the conflict to drag on and this has resulted in moderate English-speaking Cameroonians to move from federalism to secession.
This is also causing the conflict to take a turn for the worse. Extrajudicial killings have become a daily affair and ordinary citizens are also killing and maiming soldiers in retaliation for the killing of many civilians. The arrest of secessionist’s leaders in Nigeria on January 5, 2018, and their illegal extradition to Yaounde in late January have not helped matters. These leaders have been held incommunicado for almost two months and this is a concern to rights groups which hold that they deserve a fair trial and access to lawyers.
Similarly, armed groups have also cropped up across the entire region and their actions have left the government in a tight spot. The armed groups have succeeded to kidnap a few government officials and they are threatening to kidnap more as a strategy that will push the government into telling the world where their arrested leaders are. This may also help to reduce the abuses that are fueling the conflict.
These abuses are ongoing and getting serious by the day. The international community is concerned about the Cameroon government’s refusal to call for genuine and inclusive dialogue. And its approach to the resolution of this conflict has been criticized by the International Crisis Group. In its report that was released after the English-speaking regions declared their independence last October, the rights group decried government action.
Defense and security forces have always responded with disproportionate force and this usually result in deaths and sever injuries. It attributes the injuries and deaths to the use of live ammunition and excessive use of tear gas, including in homes and against worshippers.
Defense and security forces have also arrested hundreds of people without warrants of arrest, including in their homes. They have been making use of torture, as well as inhuman and degrading treatment. Sexual abuse, destruction of property and looting of homes by soldiers and police, as well as shooting from helicopters at protesters like on October 1, 2017, in places like Kumba, Bamenda and Buea have been reported by residents, local politicians, senior officials, the press, human rights organizations and the Catholic bishops of the two regions.
Today, the Anglophone regions remain under curfew imposed by their respective governors. The curfews have been imposed supposedly to allow security forces to contain attacks by armed separatists on members of the security forces. But the security forces have also been killing civilians indiscriminately. They have also been accused of committing crimes in the regions in which they have been deployed.
Since January 2018, more than 30 members of the security forces – the military, police and gendarmes – have so far been killed in guerilla-style attacks, especially at checkpoints, with the latest taking place in Kumba on March 8. The separatists have also reported having kidnapped two government officials and efforts to locate the two officers have been futile.
As the government keeps looking the other way while its security forces continue to kill and maim ordinary citizens, the Southern Cameroonian Diaspora is also working hard to ensure that the people get the right means to protect themselves. The Diaspora has been quietly mobilizing resources to bring arms to the country. These arms are helping Southern Cameroonian fighters to give government troops a run for their money.
Though the situation may be very serious, there is still room for a negotiated agreement. The government has to abandon its policy of attrition that has not worked for 17 months and embrace genuine and sincere dialogue. This dialogue must include key members of the Anglophone Diaspora which has a huge war chest.
The Southern Cameroonian Diaspora is rich. It is a Diaspora that has transformed marginalization into opportunity. If the government of Cameroon has to dream of political stability, it must reconcile with the Southern Cameroonian Diaspora that has a huge stomach for a fight. The Southern Cameroons Diaspora will continue to destabilize the country if the government does not reach out to members of this Diaspora.
Recycling old members of government and bringing those the population has rejected like Atanga Nji and Nalova Lyonga into government will not bring peace to Cameroon. Atanga Nji and Nalova Lyonga do not represent anybody and they will surely not have an audience to talk to. If the government is ready and willing to bring about an end to this conflict, it must be willing to engage with the Southern Cameroonian Diaspora which is highly concentrated in North America and the United Kingdom.
The world has changed. The Diaspora is a key factor in any country’s development. Ignoring this huge and resourceful group will only rob Cameroon of the peace it needs to engage in serious development activities. Being in denial is only making matters worse. The current lull could be deceiving. It could simply be the calm before the storm as Southern Cameroonian fighters are not yet ready to throw in the towel. There is no return to the status quo ante. The form of the state must be discussed and the Southern Cameroons Diaspora must be made to take its place at the table if peace has to return to Cameroon.
By Kingsley Betek and Pelagie Ebot with contributions from Rita Akana and Ebong Ngole